10 Questions to Ask Your Design Clients

By Tobi Fairley
10 Questions to Ask Your Design Clients

Take the guesswork out of understanding what your clients really want and expect from a project – ask these questions first.

As designers, we're interviewed by potential clients each and every day, hoping that we pass the test and win the job. But do we take the time to interview the clients? Do we make sure that they are a good fit for us? Vetting potential clients can be tricky. And in this economy, many of us feel like we don't have the luxury of turning down clients. But working with the wrong client can be more costly than not taking them on at all.

Here are my 10 questions to ask before you even sign the contract with a potential client to make sure the relationship is a win-win.

  1. What's your budget? This is the very first question I ask. Some designers are afraid to talk budget early on. But why waste everyone's time if their budget isn't consistent with the products and services you provide? You need to at least determine that they are in a realistic budget "range" that will allow you to give them what they are asking for.

  2. What is your timeframe? If they say, "Oh we aren't in a big rush, we want to finish these 6 rooms by the holidays", and the holidays are 8 weeks away, then it is likely this client has an unrealistic idea of how long a quality design project takes. Make sure that you aren't over-promising with regard to time. It will set you up for an unhappy client every time.

  3. Have you worked with a designer before? If the answer is 'yes', why are you changing designers? If a client has a lot of bad things to say about a former designer, it is likely that soon they will have similar issues with you. Be aware of these red flags while you can still walk away from the job.

  4. Who makes the decisions on this project? It can get very confusing if you are working with a couple and you aren't sure who makes the decisions. I recommend asking this question while both partners are there, so you get an honest answer that they both agree on. This will help your project move faster and more smoothly in the long run. And keep in mind, sometimes one partner controls the style direction and the other the checkbook. You need both to get the job done.

  5. What do you consider expensive? Inexpensive? Everyone's idea of price is different. One client may think a $400 lamp is a bargain and another client may think it's extravagant. Be sure you are talking the same price language. I simply ask, "When buying a sofa, what do you consider a reasonable price range?" And I continue the same question for carpets, artwork, and so forth. Some people value parts of a project and not others, so don't confuse a sofa budget with an art budget, they may not be consistent.

  6. How did you hear about my firm? If you get published in every magazine in your area and the client says they found you in the phone book, they are probably not your idea client. Referrals are typically best, but second best is someone who has seen and even researched your work and is very familiar with what you do.

  7. What is your design style or vision? If a client says they prefer ultra-traditional and you specialize in contemporary, this relationship is not a fit. Don’t try to make your style and practices fit theirs just for the money. Go out and find another client who appreciates and understands your style and you will both be happier.

  8. How do you envision the design process taking place? If the client envisions lovely shopping outings and style discussions over lunch with you and you prefer to select and create the design for the client and just present to them in your office, you are not on the same page. One of you is likely to be disappointed, or possibly downright frustrated. Be sure your expectations of each other are aligned before you sign on the dotted line.

  9. Do you make decisions quickly or do you need time to think about things? If they can’t even decide if they make decisions quickly, then they obviously don't. Clients who are indecisive can drain the profits from your project. So it's good to know their decision-making habits before you price the job, especially if you are working on a flat-fee basis.

  10. Do you use Pinterest? For my firm, Pinterest has become our favorite tool for understanding what clients want. If they don’t already pin, then we invite them to, so they can create pin boards for all the things they love. We do this before we even get started on their project so we are fully in-tune with their wants and needs from the get go. Plus, it makes our job so easy when we can access their boards anytime day or night if a creative whim strikes us. You can request an invitation from someone who is already on Pinterest, or follow WSI Designer Marketplace on Pinterest, Facebook, or Twitter and send a message to @WSIDesignTrade for a Pinterest invite.

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Tobi Fairley is a nationally-acclaimed interior designer based in Little Rock, Arkansas. Named by Traditional Home Magazine as one of the Top 20 Young designers in America in 2009, Tobi's work has graced the cover of House Beautiful and been published in Traditional Home, Southern Living, and At Home in Arkansas numerous times. Tobi recently launched her own fabric line and will release several other products lines in 2012. Her DIY design service InBox Interiors and her Design Camps have been wildly successful. Tobi recently launched Tobi Fairley and Associates, a consulting group dedicated to helping firms with the business of design. She also blogs at Tobi's Blog.